Weather Retort: Is Maryland in for Doom and Gloom on the Climate Front?

By Van Smith

First published in City Paper, Nov. 20, 1996

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The stock of that famously pat phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain, has been dropping of late. As about 300 scientists from the world over agreed last year during a United Nations conference on world climate in Rome, “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”

According to worldwide measurements, that climate is changing. In terms of temperature, the group concluded, the Earth is heating up faster than it has at any time in the past 10,000 years. Twain be damned, we are doing something about the weather, whether we mean to or not.

The scientists’ statement, made in a report issued but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggest we are suffering from an inadvertent form of hubris: By existing in ever larger and technologically advancing numbers (as humans are wont to do), we may be setting in motion our own demise. The distant past tells us that a significantly changing climate causes great transformations in life on Earth. In the modern world, with its unprecedented population growth and rapidly developing, large-scale patterns of human settlement, great social upheaval is likely to follow any critical changes in global climate. Indeed, minor climate fluctuations in the past have coincided with periods of social and political upheaval. If some of the current predictions of global climate change – shaky though they are – prove correct, the world will become a very uncomfortable place indeed.

In May, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) issued its annual “Statement on the Status of Global Climate,” revealing that 1995 was the hottest year since reliable worldwide temperature recording began in 1861. WMO’s findings buttress the scientific consensus of the 1995 IPCC report, which concludes that over the last 100 years the mean global temperature over land increased by nearly one degree Fahrenheit, over sea by nearly 1.3 degrees, and in the deep ocean by nearly two degrees; that sea level has risen by between one and two centimeters per decade; and that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased nearly 30 percent. Nine of the 10 warmest years in the 100-year period have occurred in the past decade, the group found.

The IPCC, the 300 or so delegates of which represent the collective wisdom of 2,500 climate experts, also made projections about future global climate change. By 2100, the group predicts, the mean global temperature will rise been 1.8 and 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sea level will rise between six and 37.5 inches; the panel’s “best estimate” is a 3.6-degree warming and a nearly 20-inch rise in sea level. It also predicts more storms and droughts, both of greater intensity. These and other climatic changes, the panel says, will have a grave impact on agriculture and forestry, ecosystems, water resources, human settlements, energy, transportation, industry, human health, and air quality, among other things. The IPCC’s projections present an alarmingly bleak picture of a fast-changing future environment.

Given the potential hazards of climate change, Marylanders would be well-advised to start thinking about the possible consequences for the Free State’s people, economy, and ecosystems. But there’s a problem here. Reducing the predicted global phenomenon to the regional level, then reducing it further to the state level, is a complicated matter.

Unless there’s a bevy of researchers we weren’t able to locate, it appears that Maryland’s scientific brain trust has achieved little in nailing down the specific implications of climate change for Maryland, although some promising work is underway. Instead, scientists studying Maryland’s climate have been concentrating on pinning down the truth about what’s already occurring: climate change tied to urbanization and a rise in the level of the Chesapeake Bay.

But, as Bob Dylan sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” A review of Maryland’s recent weather extremes and odd meteorological events makes the casual weather watcher wonder: Are the global changes currently causing any local change? And if so or even if they aren’t – what should we in Maryland do about the prospects of climate change?

The theory of global climate change rests on the “greenhouse effect,” a known phenomenon in which atmospheric gases – primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor – trap heat from the sun and keep it near the Earth’s surface. The service these gases perform is essential to life; they keep the Earth more than 60 degrees warmer than it would be without them.

The question is, what happens when the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases rises? Research by paleoclimatologist, who study ancient weather patterns, indicates that in the planet’s distant past, temperatures rose as greenhouse gas concentrations increased. Since human activities are causing rapid increases in all greenhouse gases, there is good reason to be concerned about the possibility of human-caused climate change.

Knowledge of the human influence on global climate has been building during the entire century-and-a-half history of modern industrial development. The greenhouse effect was first proposed and studied by European scientists in the mid-19th century. In the late 1800s scientists first theorized that industrial processes, by burning carbon-based fossil fuels, are probably increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Then, at the turn of the century, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, calculated how much temperatures were expected to increase as carbon dioxide increases. By 1900, most of the pieces of the carbon dioxide/climate puzzle were already in place.

“Nevertheless,” William Kellogg of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, wrote in a 1987 article in the scientific journal Climatic Change, “the intriguing idea that mankind could raise the earth’s temperature seems at first to have attracted surprisingly little attention in the scientific community and even less in the public media.” It was not until 1957, when two scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography wrote an article proclaiming, “Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment” by testing the greenhouse effect, that science and the public began to wise up to the potential for climate change. In 1965 the U.S. government for the first time publicly recognized the human contribution to the greenhouse effect.

Public concern picked up rapidly after a series of climate-related disasters took a tragic toll on human life and world food supplies. Crop failures in the Soviet Union and India, severe drought in Africa, fishery collapses in South America, poor U.S. corn production, and major droughts in the United States and Europe all occurred in the space of four years, causing widespread famine and agricultural losses estimated in the billions of dollars.

Ironically, much of the resulting anxiety focused on one climatologist’s theory that the disruptions were due to the advent of a new little ice age, as evidenced by a 30-year cooling in Northern Hemisphere temperatures and supported by the assertion that, according to our knowledge of past climates (gained by the efforts of paleoclimatologists) the time is ripe for another glacial period. The theory included predictions of many of the same damaging changes as would be caused by global warming, including more extreme climate, periodic droughts, and monsoon failures reducing rice production in Asia.

The prospect of an increasingly variable climate caused great concern about potential food shortages. NCAR’s Stephen Schneider, a major figure in the last 20 years of climate research, proposed in the mid-1970s what he termed the Genesis Strategy, which called for maintaining food stockpiles to guard against famine, just as Joseph did the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Schneider’s proposal, though not implemented, was timely: Due to the early-1970s climate disasters, shortage in U.S. grain reserves developed in the mid-1970s, creating concern that radical climate change could cause a catastrophic food scarcity the world over.

To help focus climate research, the U.S. Senate in 1976 convened a six-day hearing on whether to establish a national climate program. The program never materialized, but the hearing report reads like any number of today’s policy papers on the issue: “Because of the long lead times involved in reversing established technological and economic patterns, and because of the seeming irreversibility of such phenomena as the carbon dioxide effect, it is not permissible to allow the earth to perform [an] experiment in hopes of obtaining better data. Policies are needed to make decisions now based on uncertain and probabilistic information.”

The same message was heard in Congressional hearings in 1988, when the Mississippi River all but dried up during an extreme summer drought, causing widespread public alarm about global warming. It was heard again in 1990, when IPCC issued its first report, summarizing the state of our climate knowledge and made dire predictions about future climate change. And it was heard again last year, when that international panel issued a new climate report, this time saying humans are partially responsible for the climate changes already detected.

Nonetheless, a deep-seated skepticism remains among scientists and the public about the alarms. And with good reason – projecting global climate change is an inexact process involving technology that has been questioned. Temperature readings are taken from thermometers distributed primarily in urban areas, which are known to be warmer – indeed, much warmer – than rural areas; corrections for this are made in calculating the averages, but the problem introduces an element of doubt about the resulting numbers. The accuracy of tidal gauges used to record sea level is questioned; again, corrections are made, and again, such adjustments raise accuracy concerns. Finally, predictions of future climate are developed by numerous computer-based global-climate models that are the subject of intensely heated debate among scientists, who admittedly have only an elemental understanding of the climate system’s dynamics.

If nothing else, though, one thing is clear about climate-change theory: Its basic elements have been known to science for 150 years, and its general implications have been understood and explained consistently for two generations. Many, many uncertainties remain – particularly regarding the role of oceans and clouds in the global climate system – and new questions are sure to arise as new knowledge is gained. But continued climate research, rather than weakening the overall theory, has served to confirm it, at least on a global scale.

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One key aspect of climate change that remains largely out of focus is how it would be expressed regionally. In certain “hot spots” – sub-Saharan Africa, the lowlands of India, tropical rain forests, and the polar ice caps among them – researchers have been trying in earnest to understand what potential disasters lurk in the climate-change projections. But climatologically, smaller areas such as Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay are largely uncharted territory.

Not that there isn’t some official awareness of the threat in Maryland. In mid-October, Sarah Taylor-Rogers, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, addressed the problem directly before an Eastern Shore audience made up largely of farmers, fishermen, and property owners. According to a transcript of the speech appearing in the newsletter of the conference sponsor, the Climate Institute of Washington, D.C., Taylor-Rogers pointed out that the projected rise in Maryland’s population (between 1990 and 2020 an additional 1.3 million residents are expected, a 28 percent increase) “is significant because it is this very growth and development occurring all over the world that has primarily been attributed as accelerating climatological changes, evidenced by sea-level rise in the bay as well as intensified and more numerous storm occurrences” in the region.

At the same conference, dubbed “Chesapeake Bay at the Crossroads,” Stephen Leatherman of the University of Maryland Laboratory for Coastal Research explained the scientific understanding of sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay. Much of what he said is spelled out more comprehensively in Vanishing Lands: Sea Level, Society and the Chesapeake Bay, a 1995 publication that Leatherman coauthored.

“There is much we do not know about the response of the Bay ecosystem to sea-level rise,” Leatherman admits in Vanishing Lands, adding, “We do know that the seas are rising … at least three times faster during the last century than during the last 5,000 years.” A two-to-three-foot rise over the next 100 years, as is predicted, would pose “immediate consequences for low-lying coastal lands” such as on the Eastern Shore, he writes.

James Titus of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has projected specific figures for sea-level rise in Maryland. Over the next 100 years, he predicts a two-foot rise, 60 to 70 percent of which will be due to climate change.

Court Stevenson, a plant ecologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, says the bay’s waters are rising between two and five millimeters per year – faster than the global rate of sea-level rise of one to two millimeters per year. The consensus, he says, is that the rate of the rise in the bay’s waters started increasing around 1850. One indication of the rise, he points out, is that some of Baltimore City’s “early land grants are now under water.”

On the Eastern Shore, Stevenson says, “the largest single island in Maryland” has been created over the last 50 years in Dorchester County due to a combination of rising seas and subsiding land, dividing the county with tidal water. Another dramatic sea-level-related change has been in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, at least one-third of which has become submerged by bay water since the 1930s.

Given the existing effects of the bay’s rise, Stevenson says he is “astounded” and “deeply concerned” by the implications of predicted future increases. “If we see anything like two feet, we’ve got such flat land here [on the Eastern Shore], we’re going to see a lot of changes,” he says. “It is going to be significant in terms of the economy of the region.” Farmland, woods, and marshes, he says, will be lost from inundation or salt intrusion from the bay’s brackish waters. If a major storm barrels up the bay, Stevenson points out, “We’ll probably lose a lot of things very rapidly … The impact is looking tremendous, and I don’t think anyone has really calculated the impacts.”

One of the concerns about sea-level rise in the bay is whether it will wreak havoc with our energy systems. But Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), the region’s power supplier, is not currently concerned. “It is not something we have looked at,” BGE spokesperson Art Slusark says of the potential impacts of sea-level rise on its system, “nor has it been something that has been a factor” in planning for the utility’s future. Slusark says the company believes the bay’s rise will take so long that “our existing plants will be out of service before it happens.”

On the Western Shore, much of which is bordered by cliffs, there is “a lot of concern” that sea-level rise will cause dramatic shore erosion and “cliff retreat,” Stevenson says. “A lot of development is pretty close to the cliff – it is a big problem.” The only technology to prevent buildings from toppling over is the use of bulkheads along the shoreline to prevent wave action against the base of the cliffs. “The cheapest wooden bulkheads coast about $300 to $400 per linear foot, and there are many miles that would need protection,” Stevenson estimates. He calls cliff retreat “a time bomb waiting to happen.”

(Calvert Cliffs, where BGE’s nuclear reactors are located, is being significantly affected by cliff retreat, Stevenson says, but the nuclear facility is set back far enough from the cliffs to allay any immediate concern.)

Despite the potential for a dramatic rise of the bay, EPA’s Titus says public policy in Maryland does not yet officially recognize that it is happening (although officials are aware of the problem). For example, the state Critical Areas Act, designed to restrict shoreline development and preserve the bay’s coastal ecosystems, has been effective, but less and less land will be protected as the water continues to rise and shoreline is eaten away.

Meanwhile, Titus says, landowners try to prevent erosion of their waterfront property by installing bulkheads – a measure that as a practical matter denies the traditional right of public access to the shoreline up to the high-tide line. As the sea level rises and erosion occurs, he explains, the bay’s waters will lap up against the bulkheads, effectively privatizing the shoreline on which many rely for either income or recreation. He says 20 miles per year of the bay’s shoreline is already being lost to erosion, with the gravest losses on islands, some of which are inhabited and losing acreage quickly.

Titus says that state officials are planning to shore up inhabited islands with dredging spoils dug up to maintain shipping channels; the spoils currently are disposed of on the uninhabited Poplar Island. “It would be relatively expensive to ship spoils to these islands, but if we consider it worthwhile to spend hundreds of millions to have a football team, we may feel it worthwhile to preserve these islands, some of which have had people living on them for hundreds of years.

“Our policies depend on the assumption that the seas are not rising and the shoreline is not eroding,” Titus says. “But the science, on the other hand, says that sea-level rise is already happening and [there is] a high expectation that it will continue.”

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Despite the upward trend in global temperatures, no warming has been observed in the northeast United States, Titus says. The generally accepted explanation for this, he says, is “the sulfate cloud that hangs over the entire region.” The cloud is a result of industrial pollution and is made up of hydrogen-sulfate ions, which are highly reflective and cause solar radiation to bounce back up into the atmosphere rather than reach the planet’s surface. This masks the regional influence of the global-warming trend. (It also exacerbates urban pollution, Titus and others point out, because increased radiation encourages smog formation from sulfates, and smog has serious health effects.)

Nonetheless, on the local level – and, some say, even on the regional level – significant warming has been detected, but it is attributed to another phenomenon: the “urban heat-island effect.” In essence, this occurs wherever population is increasing and changes in land use are intensifying. More people means more industry, more automobiles, and other things that generate heat. It also means more buildings and roads and less vegetation; as a result, heat is retained by building materials during the day and is given off slowly at night, offsetting what would otherwise be cooling temperatures. Thus urban areas record higher temperatures than rural areas. Other climatic impacts from the urban heat island, experts say, include more precipitation, less snowfall, and more unstable air, which promotes tornadoes.

A clear demonstration of Baltimore’s urban heat island has been found by Helmut Landsberg of the University of Maryland Institute for Fluid Dynamics. Landsberg compared temperatures in the city with those of Woodstock, a rural town about 15 miles away, between 1904 and 1979, a period during which the metropolitan area’s population grew from about a half-million to two million. Woodstock’s annual mean temperatures remained unchanged, but Baltimore’s rose about 3.5 degrees – a very stark difference.

Arthur Viterito, a George Washington University geography professor who is one of the primary researchers of the urban-heat-island effect in this area, believes the Baltimore region’s heat island is pronounced and spreading – to the point of merging with other nearby heat islands. In a 1989 paper published in Climatic Change, Viterito demonstrated how Baltimore’s heat island combined with Washington, D.C.’s between 1950 and 1979, creating a continuous “heat corridor” along the axis between the two cities. Overall, he found, the Baltimore-Washington corridor has become three degrees warmer since 1950.

“Warming has continued in the Baltimore-Washington corridor,” Viterito says, and he asserts that it is spreading as rural expanses become developed all around the area, including along the main routes to Annapolis. As far as he knows. “No one has really looked at the merging of heat islands for different cities” outside of this area, but Viterito believes the phenomenon is spreading to other parts of the Eastern seaboard as well.

“You really do get permanent climate change on a regional scale now – not just local,” he says. “Within the next 50 years, we are going to see large-scale change [from merging heat islands] in the Boston-Richmond corridor … . A large part of global climate change is attributable to urban growth.”

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Other than demonstrations of the urban heat island, not much has been done to analyze Maryland’s climate to determine if it is changing. Viterito says he has “not seen anything done on the local climate since 1989,” when his paper came out. This leaves a big question mark, and an unfortunate one, because it appears from the available data on Maryland’s climate that extreme events are occurring more regularly.

For instance, tornadoes have been touching down more regularly in the Baltimore area – one hit North Avenue in November 1994.

Another troubling trend – one that is causing extensive damage to the Chesapeake Bay’s ecology, scientists say – is the near-record-high levels of fresh water running of into the bay in recent years. So far, 1996 has had the second-highest average daily flow on record, and 1993 and 1994 were significantly above-average years as well, according to figures maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Such anomalies, as well as record monthly and annual temperature and precipitation averages, make lay people wonder what’s up with the weather. Answers aren’t forthcoming.

For instance, state climatologist Alan Robock, who is also a meteorology professor at University of Maryland, does not have a prepared study available for the public about Maryland’s climate.

“I don’t have all these records at my fingertips,” he explains. When asked if Maryland’s climate is thought to be growing more variable, what with reputed global climate change and the urban heat island effect, he responds, “It is normal for the weather to be variable and it is normal for the climate to change.”

On the Internet, monthly climate reports are available from the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Records of extreme mean temperatures and extreme precipitation amounts include some interesting facts about Maryland’s recent climate: In 100 years of record-keeping, 16 records have been set for Maryland since 1981. 1990 was the hottest year on record. The summer of 1987 was the hottest summer on record, and record mean highs for four months – April, May, November, and December – were set during the period of 1984 to 1994. The only record for cold set recently was the 24.5-degree mean temperature in December 1989.

Regarding precipitation, four of the driest months and three of the wettest months in Maryland in the last 100 years occurred between 1983 and 1994. The driest spring occurred in 1986, with only 5.52 inches of precipitation; the wettest came in 1983, with 19.06 inches.

In the past two years alone, Maryland has had 17 monthly or seasonal temperature averages for precipitation readings that fall within the top 10 for those categories in 100 years of record-keeping.

Meanwhile, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where records have been kept since 1950, the record peak wind gusts for each of the 12 months of the year were recorded between 1985 and 1995. 1990 was the warmest year on record at BWI, 1991 was the second-warmest, and the next five warmest years occurred in the 1980s.

These climatic highs and lows occurring in recent clusters seem odd, but, as Robock explained, weather is always variable and climate is always changing. Without serious analysis, little can be made of these numbers other than that they are interesting and seem to indicate a lot of weather swings in recent years.

They are even more provocative because the records are occurring in conjunction with other extreme weather events, such as the all-time record snowfall total for 1996; the extended drought in 1995 that threatened Baltimore water supplies; large and growing numbers of reported tornadoes outside of the normal tornado season; and severe storms that dump extremely heavy rain in short periods of time. Most of these occurrences are anecdotal and might fall within the normal bounds of weather variability, but no scientist we contacted has studied or is aware of any studies showing whether they do or not.

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One of the more worrisome aspects of global climate change, one with possible consequences for this area, was studied recently by Jonathan Patz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. The resulting article, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January, raises concerns that global climate change “can affect the introduction and dissemination of many serious infectious diseases.”

In particular, Patz and his coauthors note that climate-sensitive mosquito-borne diseases (e.g., malaria and dengue fever) and waterborne infections and toxin-related illnesses (e.g., cholera and shellfish poisoning) may become more widespread in a warmer climate, especially if human populations become more susceptible due to other climate-related impacts.

Patz summarized his research in a November 13th presentation at the Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. He pointed out that worldwide, 11 climate-related disease outbreaks have already occurred in the 1990s.

Mosquito-borne diseases, he says, are likely to cause epidemics in warmer climates because the insects tend to be smaller and therefore need to bite more times in order to reproduce. Each bite increases the likelihood of disease transmission. This change may cause widespread fatal sickness, particularly in conjunction with other factors, such as the spread of the disease-carrying mosquitos into populations that have not developed immunity to the diseases. Also, such parasites have faster incubation periods in higher temperatures, which is “very important in terms of epidemic spread,” Patz said.

Patz is continuing his research into the disease-related impacts of global climate change and is starting to look into the potential of such problems – possibly even the spread of traditionally subtropical afflictions – in the mid-Atlantic region, including Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. In particular, he says he will explore the prospects of outbreaks of cryptosporidium, which causes extreme and sometimes fatal diarrhea. He’s concerned that more severe storms and flooding may increase the likelihood of outbreaks in this region – as occurred in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last year – because the waterborne disease is resistant to chlorination and can get by filtration systems. He stresses, however, that the research is only just starting and no conclusions have yet been drawn about risks in this area.

Another JHU researcher, Stan Becker, who studies population dynamics, is concerned about the health implications of global climate change in light of the tremendous population increase. “We are in a unique time in the history of this planet in regard to human population growth,” he explained at the November 13th Hopkins symposium. Currently there are approximately 5.7 billion people on Earth, and the number is expected to rise to somewhere between 11.3 billion and 19.2 billion by 2100.

Such a doubling or tripling of Earth’s population is bound to have an impact on the rate of global climate change – and if such rapid change occurs, the health stresses on the human population could be dire.

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So what is to be done? Do we stop driving, stop heating and cooling our homes and offices, stop having kids? Obviously, in our democratic society such behavioral changes would have to be voluntary – and such widespread change in habits is difficult to achieve, especially since most people haven’t considered the problem enough to understand it.

In 1994, the academic journal Risk Analysis published a survey of people’s knowledge of global climate change, and the results were enlightening: Folks, even well-educated folks, were woefully ignorant of the issue’s basic elements.

“Laypeople display a variety of misunderstandings and confusions about the causes and mechanisms of climate change,” the authors concluded. “Both the United States and the rest of the world are currently considering policy responses to the issue of climate change which would entail costs and expenditures amounting to trillions of dollars. U.S. society cannot have intelligent democratic debate on these choices unless people are better informed.”

At this point, probably the best step we as average citizens can take to deal with global climate change is to try to understand it. Maybe then we will grow to care about it more. As GWU’s Viterito points out, the “last big hurrah” in terms of public concern about global climate change was in 1990, when the world was especially tuned in to environmental problems. Since then, “everybody said they’re not interested anymore,” Viterito says, particularly because doomsday scenarios are no fun to contemplate.

“The Earth has been coming to an end since about 4,000 B.C.,” Viterito remarks, tongue in cheek, “so people tend to pooh-pooh this. But as the economy gets impacted, then people will start to pay attention again.”

What is needed to get our dander up now about global climate change? Viterito says it will take a climate-related disaster close to home.

“What you need is a humongous drought to hit the Northeast,” he says. “I’ll guarantee we’’ll talk about global warming again.”

Baltimore’s Leaking Sewage Problem Just Got Interesting

by Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June. 4, 2014

For years, people in Baltimore have lived with the presence of sewage in local waters, be it in the harbor, the Jones Falls, the Gwynns Falls, Herring Run, or any of their tributaries. City Hall, in order to avoid costly litigation and the likelihood of extreme penalties for failing to comply with the Clean Water Act for this problem, in 2002 agreed to spend about a billion dollars over 14 years to fix its leaky sewer system. Since then, users of the system have seen their water-and-wastewater bills rise dramatically, as efforts to pay for the costly repairs have mounted. Yet still, the sewage leaks, the air reeks, and waterways remain fouled.

Now we know why: Blue Water Baltimore, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the degraded water quality of the area’s waterways, today filed lengthy legal papers demonstrating the abject failure of city, state, and federal regulators to properly uphold their legal duties under the Clean Water Act and the 2002 agreement, known as a consent decree, that avoided costly litigation. In seeking to intervene in the federal court case under which the consent degree was entered, BWB’s lawyers have done an admirable job demonstrating the facts of the matter: despite underwriting expensive efforts to deliver a sealed sewer system that keeps waters from being fouled by delivering sewage only to treatment plants, the city’s residents still live cheek-to-jowel with sewage that’s erupting up through manhole covers in storms, steadily flowing directly into the Jones Falls from an outfall, and chronically leaking from upstream pipes that haven’t been replaced or repaired.

City Paper published a painstakingly researched article about this problem in 2007, and the regulators’ response at that time was utterly naïve. “I am not aware of any continuous discharges of untreated sewage going on,” said Angela McFadden, a high-ranking EPA water-pollution enforcer – a declaration that many Baltimore residents would find laughable, then and now. Eventually, CP‘s follow-up coverage included the EPA getting its hackles up about the problem and the city admitting to under-reporting and professing to make much-needed improvements. Now, EPA and the city are reportedly negotiating to revise the consent decree so that it’s 2016 deadline for fixing the system can be extended, and BWB is asking to be allowed in as a party to the litigation in order “to give citizens a voice in the revision process and to formally request that all parties do more to stop sewer spills and protect public health,” according to an email BWB sent out today.

According to the filings, BWB is asking the federal court for six things: “1. A declaration that the City of Baltimore is in violation of the Clean Water Act and the 2002 Consent Decree; 2. A modification of the 2002 Consent Decree to address the lack of compliance and enforcement of the City of Baltimore’s obligations; 3. An injunction against the City of Baltimore compelling compliance with the Clean Water Act and the 2002 Consent Decree; 4. An order enforcing the Clean Water Act and imposing civil penalties against the City of Baltimore pursuant to 33 U.S.C. §§ 1319, 1365; 5. An award of attorney’s fees and reasonable litigation expenses incurred in this case; and 6. Such other relief as this Court may deem appropriate.” 

In building up to those requests, though, BWB’s filings, authored by its Covington & Burling attorneys, provide compelling evidence that Baltimore’s chronically leaking sewer system is far from repaired, despite huge public investments. Now that BWB has thrown down the gauntlet, accusing regulators at all levels of failing to protect the environment and public health in this arena, it’s up to U.S. District judge Frederick Motz, who presides over the case, to decide what is to be done.

“100 Years”

by Olive Pierre

Olive Pierre’s recitation copy of “100 Years.”
As recited by Olive Pierre, Feb. 2021.

On August 18, 1920, “women” got the right to vote,

but did they really?

Women are still women

black skinned or white skinned,

and yet on August 18, 1920

black women still didn’t get to vote,

even though they fought for this right too.

If there was a zebra with no stripes,

would you not give it the right to eat?

It’s the same.

Black women had no say

in the rights

they’d been fighting for since slavery.

After 1920, they fought for almost 50 more years,

just to be able to cast their vote

for who would run their country.

50 years later black women put Joe Biden

in office with our first black woman vice president.

Dog Tags: An Astrological Take on Our Dog and Daughters

by Van Smith

These three, about five years ago.

Early on in the pandemic, we made flash cards using a business-card app and our newly obtained printer. Our home having suddenly become a school/office, cafeteria included, an occasional practice after lunch for our daughters, then 8 and 10, was to zoom an astrology class with my Renaissance-mama sister, an artist up in Philly.

This home-schooling activity produced a set of self-descriptors that quickly proved useful as a vocabulary builder, when together we made a set of cards with definitions and sentence uses on the back. Collectively, it produced a wonderfully devastating portrait, a hybrid Hydra of all our celebrations and challenges as parents. “Aspiring,” “acquisitive,” “rapturous,” “enterprising,” “overzealous,” “foolhardy,” “egocentric,” and “pragmatic” combine quite artfully among them.

Zeroing in on the six words in the flashcard set that have as the sentence subject our dog, a 14-pound rat terrier on Prozac named Elphie (whose eternal existential battle is over territory dubbed “The Couch” by her owners), produces a mash-up of our daughters and dog, a montage to inspire both fear and adoration. Let’s take it in alphabetical order. 

Assertive: Having or showing a confident and forceful personality. “If someone pats Elphie’s chest and stops, she assertively scratches at the person’s arm to get them to resume.”

Conservative: Disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions, limit change, and restore traditions thought to be on the wane. “When it came to the couch, Elphie was a staunch conservative.” 
Demonstrative: Tending to show feelings openly, especially affection. “Elphie was demonstrative whenever Mom walked into the room, positively brimming over with pure love.” 

Fervent: Having or displaying a passionate intensity. “It was Elphie’s fervent belief that danger forever was knocking on our front door.” 

Impetuous: Prone to rash action or emotion. “Elphie, always the impetuous dog, suddenly bit Olive in the face.”

Substantial: Of considerable importance, size, or worth. “Though small and nearly given away to us, Elphie holds substantial value in our hearts.”

So there we have it: an assertive, conservative, demonstrative, fervent, impetuous, substantial lot, they are. We wouldn’t – indeed, we couldn’t – have it any other way.

Dear Madame Vice President

My name is Rye Pierre. I am a student in 6th grade. First, I wanted to say that you are my idol and I support all of your decisions. I know that your next 100 days will be busy. Over the next four years, I wanted to ask if you could do a few things that might improve our country.

First, I would really, really like to go back to school and Mr. President said he would work on that first thing when he went into office. I’ve never actually seen my school before and I don’t want to spend my full first year at this school online.

Another thing is getting the vaccine out as fast as possible to as many people as possible. My father has bad lung problems and is very vulnerable to the virus. But he isn’t qualified as a senior citizen so he won’t get it very quickly, being 55.

Something else I would love to happen as quickly as possible is definitely getting someone to prosecute our old president, Mr. Trump, as quickly as possible. I wish I could do it myself, but I’m only 11.

I’ve been rooting for you since your ran for President, but even VP is so important for all women. One last thing that I would like you to do in your four (and hopefully more) years in office is teach some men how to respect women. It really bugs me how women are still treated like they are lesser than men, even though we could be more powerful if some men weren’t telling young girls that they were nothing, and they were just there for men’s entertainment purposes.

I trust that you will do all these things because you are my idol and I believe that you are an extremely strong woman.

Sincerely,

Rye Pierre

The Wind: Hope is a Way of Life

Our eleven-year-old atop a West Virginia ridge.

This is the child who coined the phrase, “the Jesus Generation,” to describe kids like her: living sacrifices for the sins of her forebears. As a culture, we’ve done so much wrong while achieving so much good across generations, and our collective excesses, our greed, our hatred, our selfishness, our thoughtlessness, all come with a price exacted on those now growing up or still to be born. It’s shameful. Here is our hope, taking in the wind with sacred beauty stretched before her.

Welcome to Stalin World: Terror, Tourism, and Soviet Art

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 5, 2003

When Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin died 50 years ago this March 5, Leningrad was celebrating its 250th year. Now the old Russian capital is called St. Petersburg again, and for its 300th anniversary the Baltimore arts establishment is throwing a party: Vivat! St. Petersburg, a month-long celebration of Russian culture. While neither Stalin nor Soviet art have been featured, the dictator and state-sponsored work from the former U.S.S.R. no doubt left impressions on Baltimore’s large community of immigrants from the former Soviet states. They, too, were largely left out of the Vivat! parade.

With Vivat! winding down and Stalin’s death day upon us, the time is ripe to showcase official Soviet art. But where does one go to find it? Near the Baltic spa town of Druskininkai in Lithuania, about 75 miles southwest of its capital, Vilnius. Here is Grutas Park, opened on April Fool’s Day in 2001, styling itself as the world’s only “attempt to accumulate and duly exhibit the relics of Soviet ideology.” Dubbed “Stalin World” by the press, the sculpture park exhibits 86 Soviet-era works, many of them damaged by crowds as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

When in the planning stages in 1999, Grutas Park was met with protests and hunger strikes in Lithuania. Yet the park has hosted more than 300,000 visitors so far, and a debate over Soviet tourism as a whole–of which Stalin World is as fine an example as one can hope to find–has begun in Baltic newspapers. Even in Western academia, where official Soviet art has long been dismissed as worthless, its cultural value is, in some corners, being reassessed.

When asked, many in Baltimore’s Soviet-immigrant community, tens of thousands strong, said they would rather not remember Stalin or reconsider the severely constrained artistic expressions he and other Soviet leaders permitted. But some were willing. Artists, in particular, shared their thoughts after looking at images of Grutas Park that were brought back last fall by Baltimore artist and photographer John Ellsberry. Most reacted with a shrug.

“Maybe when people are not afraid of communist regime . . . they will be interested to see these images.” –Gennadiy Gurvich

“It’s funny stuff,” chuckles Noi Volkov, a ceramics maker and painter who moved here from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1989, when he was already an established artist in his early 40s. “It’s just government propaganda. A group of members of the Communist Party took the power and they want to have this power as long as possible. It’s why they say art must be way under control and about just one idea. The idea? That the communist regime is the greatest regime in the world. That’s it.”

Official Soviet art is often seen, like the U.S.S.R. itself, as an outgrowth of the paternalism that long characterized Russian culture. Stalin, like the czars, bred a cult of personality around himself, lording over his nation like a conqueror over the vanquished. But the czars’ patronage underwrote a more “democratic” arts environment, Volkov says, while Stalin stoked and shaped the creative class to pay homage to the state’s ideals–Stalin’s ideals–and brutally oppressed those who tried to express anything else.

Stalin held sway over the U.S.S.R. and Soviet art until his death in 1953; his monomaniacal cult of personality would outlive him long. In the mid-1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev denounced “how the cult of the person of Stalin has been gradually growing,” becoming “the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions.” Soon after, the Soviet Union began removing many of the publicly displayed statues of Stalin, which helps explain why Grutas Park has only two sculptures of the regime’s most infamous icon.

But even after Stalin’s era passed, the centralized Soviet approach to the arts never ceased. It was immortalized in the Soviet constitution: “The state concerns itself with protecting, augmenting, and making extensive use of society’s cultural wealth for the moral and aesthetic education of the Soviet people, for raising their cultural level.”

Art, in other words, was used to shape and mold the populace rather than as a means of self-expression. For 74 years, the Soviet regime used this legal foundation to fuel the production of prodigious quantities of anonymous official art and persecuted artists who didn’t make use of the approved style, Socialist Realism, typified by the realistic yet idealized renderings of Soviet leaders and stoic workers found at Grutas Park. “They lived very hard lives,” says Noi Volkov of the nonconformist artists. “Some died. Some went to jail or mental clinic and spent very poor life, full of difficulties. Terrible life.” Volkov knows of these hardships from first-hand experience. He was held and interrogated by Soviet police for two months for his illegal artistic activities, he recalls, and underwrote his unofficial art endeavors by making and selling ceramic clocks on the black market. “This clock is very popular,” he says, pointing to a timepiece on a bookshelf in his studio. “It helped me live probably 10 years.”

“I don’t think Russian art would be where it is now were it not for these images.” — Nino Leselidze

In 1917, when the Russian Revolution brought czarism to its knees, monumental statues of previous Russian leaders were destroyed by fervent masses. In 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled in a series of bloodless coups, its statues, too, were toppled. Ten years later, Grutas Park started to put some of the Soviet remains on display. “This is not a show park,” writes Grutas Park founder Viliumas Malinauskas, a Lithuanian pickled-mushroom exporter, in the first issue of the park’s newsletter. “This is a place reflecting the painful past of our nation, which brought a lot of pain, torture, and loss. One cannot forget or cross out history, whatever it is.”

Elena Volkov (no relation to Noi), a 27-year-old photographer and recent Maryland Institute College of Art graduate originally from Kiev, Ukraine, says, “It surprises me that this would happen in Lithuania. . . . The Baltic countries always resisted the Soviet regime, so it is interesting that someone is collecting Soviet sculpture there.”

Norton Dodge, a longtime collector of Soviet art from Mechanicsville, fills in the history. “The Baltics were taken over two times by the Soviets,” he says. “First they were under Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again. Under Hitler, 30,000 to 50,000 Baltic intellectuals, including many artists, were taken to camps in the Urals. Then, when Stalin came back in, tens of thousands more were sent to camps in [eastern Russia]. So it was a very rough beginning with the Soviet situation in the Baltics.”

Visitors to the Grutas Park are given an eerie taste of totalitarianism upon first arriving. Just past the entrance is a railroad cattle car–a grim reminder of how unfortunate Soviet citizens were hauled off to worker camps. Authentic Soviet mortars from World War II greet kids entering the park’s playground, and a boardwalk trail meanders through a dense pine forest and bogs. A moat-like canal, electrified fences, and mock guard towers with loudspeakers broadcasting tinny Soviet marching music help re-create the feel of a Siberian gulag. Here and there are clearings in the woods, filled with immense Soviet-era sculptures.

The squeals and squawks of Stalin World’s petting zoo are more appealing than the sculpture to Regina Buloviene, a bed-and-breakfast owner from Vilnius who served as an unofficial guide for Ellsberry’s visit. “I like the ostriches better than the old statues,” she said laughingly.

“They lived very hard lives. Some died. Some went to jail or mental clinic and spent very poor lives, full of difficulties.” –Noi Volkov

Back in Baltimore, Nino Leselidze, a 23-year-old photographer whose family moved to Baltimore in 1992 from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, looks at the Stalin World images and thinks first and foremost that “people were getting brainwashed by this propaganda.” But she still believes “they have value–historical value at least. And also technical value. Technically, they are very well done. But historically, the people growing up now, the younger generations, they should know the history. So [Grutas Park] would be a very good way to learn and see, because they are not growing up with these images anymore.”

Leselidze also attaches a grander importance to these images in the development of art in Russia. “I don’t think Russian art would be where it is now were it not for these images,” she says. “Even though it was propaganda, it helped people get into another frame of mind and make different kinds of work.” The monolith of Socialist Realism, Leselidze suggests, pushed artists to find room to breathe in other, more experimental styles that have since been lumped together as Soviet nonconformist art.

“I can’t be very much surprised because this is what I grew up with,” Elena Volkov says dryly while looking at images from Grutas Park. “A collection of such sculpture at one place, it can be very depressing. But if this type of art served the country, I can’t call it useless.

“During [World War II], it really inspired people and helped people to overthrow the Germans and deal with the humongous power of the Nazis,” she continues. “After that, it was like, ‘We defended ourselves and we won the war, and this is what helped us do it and so we are going to continue in this direction.’ And it was all about the happy life that we were building–this is our future and everybody’s happy. The only bad aspect of it is that it eliminated other forms of art.”

Gennadiy Gurvich, a ceramics maker and designer who moved to Baltimore nearly six years ago from Belarus, says Stalin World’s value is akin to that of the miniature models of communist icons his Russian real-estate agent displays in his office. “I ask him, ‘Why are you collecting that?’ And he answer, ‘This is best medicine for nostalgia,'” Gurvich says. “So [Grutas Park] is to treat the mentality. Because many people grow up in the Soviet era and they have communist mentality and they can’t change in so short a time. Because, you know, this new period for former Soviet republics is not so good. And when they come see this exhibition, maybe it is like a treatment for them.”

“This type of art served the country . . . the only bad aspect of it is that it eliminated other forms of art.” –Elena Volkov

Gurvich has another idea, though: “Maybe when people are not afraid of communist regime, they will be interested in what happened in the past. And maybe they will be interested to see these images. So maybe it is all for a commercial idea, to sell [tickets] to monuments.”

And that may be the nicest thing about Stalin World. At five Lithuanian litas–about $1.50–admission is light on the wallet. The weighty part is what that buys: a bizarre trip through the iconography of Soviet repression, full of reminders of power gone amok amid lies and terror.

“After the revolution, Lenin came to power,” says Noi Volkov, giving a thumbnail sketch of his view of Soviet history. “And he killed a lot of people. And after Stalin came to power, he killed more people. A couple of generations become very much afraid. They remember everything.” On the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death, perhaps too many don’t remember. And that, Volkov says, is what makes Stalin World worthwhile: “Like Gennadiy [Gurvich] said, it is best medicine for nostalgia.”

The Mizeur Effect

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 26, 2014

After the polls closed at 8 p.m. on June 24, it quickly became clear that Heather Mizeur was not going to be the Democrats’ standard-bearer heading into November’s general election, much less Maryland’s first gay, woman governor elected by tapping into the state’s public campaign-financing system. But judging from how her supporters reacted as they gathered on election night at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore to hear her concession speech, she—and they—somehow still seemed victorious.

“Heather! Heather!” the crowd of a couple hundred supporters and campaign workers cheered, as Mizeur basked in the intense glow of the TV news teams’ lights.

“We now have a core, organized movement going forward—I have names and numbers,” said Karen Stokes, the Mizeur campaign’s Baltimore City coordinator and the executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. State Del. Mary Washington, who represents Northeast Baltimore, added that “no one feels tonight that they’ve lost. They’re moving the progressive agenda forward. Their voices were heard. This is exciting. Six months ago, could anyone imagine her breaking 20 percent?”

In a telephone interview two days after the election, Mizeur makes it clear “I was in it to win it,” but says the campaign was “never really about winning an election as much as it was about raising consciousness and encouraging people to stay involved.”

Mizeur did break the 20-percent mark, getting about 100,000 votes from Maryland’s Democratic electorate, only 11,000 or so fewer than Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a well-established statewide political figure who came in second behind the overwhelming victor, Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, whose campaign raised and spent many millions. Not bad for a two-term state delegate from Takoma Park.

“Maryland politics will never be the same,” declared Delman Coates, the Prince George’s County pastor who ran for lieutenant governor as Mizeur’s running mate. “This is not a moment in time, but a movement,” he said while addressing the crowd, adding that Mizeur “compelled us to believe in new things to make our communities better” and “did not run for governor to make history or further her political career,” but “to make change.” Addressing Mizeur directly, Coates added: “You have started a movement and I will happily ride with you.”

When Mizeur spoke, she declared that her supporters “have shown the power a movement can have when we work together for positive change.” Claiming that “the pundits, the media, the politicians all agree: We ran, hands down, the best campaign in this election,” Mizeur exhorted the crowd for having “changed the way campaigns will be run in Maryland” and argued that “we have restored so much integrity to the electoral process” by showing that voters “can come together to build community again.” That process, she continued, “does not stop with an election”—after “building this movement” and having “changed the conversation” in Maryland, her supporters need to make sure “Maryland becomes a truly progressive state and heeds your call for change” by creating “Maryland’s new ruling progressive class.”

The progressive policy template that Mizeur touted on the campaign trail was tailored to advance basic notions of societal equality though targeted government policies. Tax relief for working families and small businesses, educational reform funded in part by legalizing and taxing marijuana, assuring workers earn a living wage, ending what she calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” created by existing criminal-justice policies, and expanding access to affordable healthcare—these and many other proposals she advanced on her website, her campaign advertising, during media interviews, and in the televised debates.

The extent to which Mizeur’s ideas resonated with Maryland’s Democrats can be measured not only by the 100,000 votes she received, but by the grass-roots fervor reflected in her campaign finances, as compared to Brown’s, during the final weeks leading to the election. Brown’s campaign took in almost 1,300 contributions totaling more than $1.1 million since May 1, for an average donation of almost $900. At the same time, Mizeur’s campaign got more than 3,800 contributions, yielding around $420,000 in private contributions (another $270,000 or so came in the form of matching funds from the state’s public-financing system), for an average contribution of just over $100. That’s an impressively broad base of citizen donors.

The preliminary election results show where Mizeur’s campaign did best. While nearly 60 percent of her votes came out of Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and Montgomery County, she led the pack in Kent County on the Eastern Shore—where she and her wife, Deborah Mizeur, have a farm—and came in second in Baltimore City and Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, and Howard counties.

After Mizeur’s speech was over, the crowd slowly thinned and the camera crews broke down their equipment. In the days following, City Paper contacted some of Mizeur’s Baltimore-area supporters to see if they thought Mizeur’s stab at the State House could have a lingering effect on Maryland politics.

“I think other politicians will take notice of the type of campaign she ran and realize that they can run positive, idea-driven campaigns and thrive because of it,” suggests Keith Gayler, a former research director at the Abell Foundation and policy analyst at the Maryland State Department of Education. “She ran an unapologetically progressive campaign when progressive is often used as term of derision,” Gayler continues, adding, “who else was really talking about inequality, the issue of our time?”

Thomas Dolina, a lawyer who says he first met Mizeur when both were at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, says Mizeur’s qualified success as a gubernatorial candidate is partly due to the fact that “she’s a progressive without demonizing those who disagree with her, and I find that to be a rare attribute.” He says the fact that she performed so well at the polls “while making a sacrifice not to take money” the way campaigns traditionally do—without the constraints of the public-financing system, which limits a campaign’s fundraising and spending—”creates a model where that kind of methodology is successful.” He’s not so sure that the progressive coalition that backed Mizeur will be able to keep its momentum going. “I’ve seen that happen so many times,” he says. “It’s a ripple. It might turn into a wave.”

Joanne Nathans, the founder of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that seeks to economically empower the working class and unemployed, says Mizeur “carried off a really impressive grass-roots campaign” in which “a large number of people supported her and her ideas” even though “she sort of came out of nowhere. She’s now a force to be reckoned with.” As for the “future impact” of the campaign, Nathans notes that Mizeur is “a progressive, principled person” who “respects the voters” and “became a credible candidate despite having very little name recognition initially,” so “other candidates will pay attention to how Heather conducted herself in this campaign.”

Mizeur says her campaign organization and supporters “have loosely discussed having a retreat to explore how to keep everyone engaged” after the election. The issues her campaign sought to address, she continues, “are not going away, so I’m thinking about the best way for me to continue to make a difference” through “this movement of people who are pressing our government and leaders to make these changes.”

In particular, Mizeur says she believes work needs to be done to change the culture at like-minded, progressive institutions in the state that “support me on the issues, but weren’t willing to back the campaign because they are part of the establishment. There’s a sense that some of these organizations have become part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we have to figure out how to harness that.”

Despite the loss, Mizeur says she is committed to continuing the work her campaign started. “There are lots of ways for me to serve,” she says, “and I’m very open to figuring out the best way. I’m not walking away from this work, or this movement, or this state that I love so dearly.”